WASHINGTON, October 26, 2009 – Absent from the notice of proposed rulemaking released by the Federal Communications Commission Thursday is the charged term of “network neutrality” that has been discussed over the years. Instead, the paper is focused on the need to preserve an “open internet” through government intervention.
The problem is that neither the principle of network neutrality – which deals with how broadband providers may charge differential rates for preferred business customers – or the need to preserve an “open internet” are precise words. Defining either for the purpose of government rules is not an easy task.
The focus on “open internet” versus “network neutrality” in the FCC’s proposed rules and the statement released by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski makes sense given that it is easier to find supporters of the former than the latter. Still, President Obama used the term “network neutrality” during his campaign.
Regardless of the language used, the discussion of whether the government should become more involved to support network neutrality principles has gone on for years.
“Three years ago we were having a very different discussion; we didn’t have the kinds of applications on the Internet that we have today,” said Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. “Three years from now, we are going to have issues come up that we couldn’t predict today.”
Andy Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, said “I would say that the biggest change in the net neutrality debate has been the emergence of high speed wireless networks. This has made the issue more complex, and also more real, to people.”
A second factor is the effort of the large carriers to “make content providers subject to regulation,” he said. Schwartzman noted that the role of edge players such as Google, Skype and Amazon has become more and more important.
“Network neutrality – the concept that the Internet should remain free and open to all comers – has been a major public policy priority for Google over the last two years. But anyone who has followed the debate closely knows that one of the challenges raised by our opponents has been defining what exactly the term means. The fact is, net neutrality can mean different things to different people,” wrote Google’s Washington Telecom and Media Counsel Richard Whitt in a 2007 blog post.
At the time, Whitt clarified what Google meant by the term. He was also reacting to some statements by top Google executives suggesting a softening of the company’s hard-line views on the subject. Whitt noted “that lack of broadband competition gives providers the market incentive and ability to discriminate against Web-based applications and content providers.”
If the definition of either network neutrality or what it means to ensure an open internet were clear and confined, the FCC would not need 107 pages to address the issues at hand and to explain why establishing rules governing internet access makes sense even as technology continues to evolve.
Atkinson defined the issues at the heart of the debate as being “first whether ISPs have blocked or degraded Web sites and under what circumstances, if any should this be allowed.”
The problem of blocking legitimate web sites or applications has never been realized, Atkinson said, with the exception of the case of Madison River, a small internet service provider blocking Vonage’s voice-over-internet-protocol applications. “The second issue is whether commercial arrangements should be allowed that would enable content and application providers who paid higher premiums to get better delivery of their Web products,” he said. “The third issue is how ISP networks should be managed to enhance performance.”
Atkinson urged the FCC to establish a generalized principle for a fair and open internet and enforce that principle on a case-by-case basis.
Genachowski summed up the challenge last Thursday, when he said, “[D]o any of us think that the draft rules proposed today perfect? Are they set in stone? No—we are at the beginning of a rulemaking process, with draft rules offered in the context of a Notice that seeks to spot the issues, ask the hard questions, and seek broad public input.”
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Senate Committee OK’s Rosenworcel, Questions Sohn on Mapping, Net Neutrality, Broadband Standards
Gigi Sohn explained her positions on issues facing the FCC.
WASHINGTON, December 1, 2021 – As the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmed Jessica Rosenworcel as commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, it also questioned Wednesday agency nominee Gigi Sohn on issues including net neutrality, broadband mapping, and speeds.
Rosenworcel is already chairwoman of the FCC by virtue of being named to the position by President Joe Biden. The president picks the chair of the agency from among the commissioners. However, Rosenworcel’s term as commissioner is to expire unless the Senate confirms her appointment to another term.
The committee on Wednesday also approved Alvaro Bedoya, a staunch privacy advocate, as commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission and had rounds at questioning Alan Davidson, who was nominated as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which will oversee $42.5 billion in broadband funds from the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
On mapping, Sohn called for a “crowdsourcing” effort amongst states to improve the quality of broadband mapping, as the agency has started to do. “A lot of states have maps already and they are quite accurate,” she said. Though she could not commit to a timeline, Sohn said that there could be no “good policy without good maps” and that if she were confirmed, she would dedicate herself to improve the FCC’s broadband maps.
Sohn also voiced her support for municipal broadband. “I have supported municipal broadband for a very long time,” she said, adding she supports open access models that allow service providers to share the same network. Sohn pointed to Utah as an example, where the model has been implemented successfully. She stated that the model has led to “enormous competition” for service providers.
When pressed as to whether the FCC should be able to preempt states and dictate how they implement their broadband policy, Sohn said she would like the FCC to have a better relationship with states. “If I am confirmed, one of the things I would ask the chairwoman [to use me as] a liaison to the states, because I’ve really formed very good relationships with them,” she said. “In the past, we have not [reached out] to the states and made them partners. We have been more adversarial.”
Net neutrality, broadband standards and Big Tech
Sohn also came out in support of net neutrality. “What I am concerned about now, with the repeal in 2017 of the net neutrality rules and the reclassification of broadband, is that we have no touch,” she said. “[Net neutrality] is really much broader than [preventing] blocking and throttling. It is about whether or not bandwidth – which we all agree is an essential service – should have government oversight, and right now, it does not.”
Legislators also questioned Sohn on her perspectives regarding broadband standards. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asked Sohn what standard – whether it was 100 Mbps download with 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical service – would bridge the digital divide. Sohn stated that it would take more than just the deployment of infrastructure to bridge the digital divide.
“I have urged that Congress adopt a permanent broadband subsidy like the Affordable Connectivity Program – which is more money but is not permanent,” Sohn said. “You still always have the adoption problem as well, where people do not have the digital literacy, sometimes not even [actual] literacy, to be able to use the internet.”
Insofar that capacity and internet speeds are concerned, Sohn emphasized that the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act “does prefer scalable networks to meet the needs of tomorrow.”
“What we do not want, I would think – or I would not want – is to come back in five or ten years and say, ‘Oh, my goodness! We spent all this money, and we still have slow networks, and we still have areas that are not served,” she said. “The ability to have technologies that can grow over time.” Sohn stopped short of explicitly listing specific scalable technologies.
On Big Tech, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, described “a confluence of liberals advocating for censoring anyone with whom they disagree,” and a situation where “big tech [is] eagerly taking up the mantle to censor those with whom they disagree.” Cruz asked Sohn how she could guarantee she would not “use the power of government to silence.”
Sohn said that she would “make that commitment” to not act in such a way and added that she would “take any allegations of bias extremely seriously.” She said that she will continue to work with the Office of Government Ethics to dissuade any concerns people may have about her biases.
A date for a vote on Sohn and Davidson’s nominations has not yet been scheduled.
Biden Signs Executive Order on Net Neutrality, Broadband Pricing Policy and Big Tech Merger Scrutiny
Executive order would kickoff new antitrust and net neutrality regulations.
July 9, 2021—President Joe Biden on Friday announced his intent to sign an executive order addressing an array of 72 initiatives, including net neutrality, and generally taking aim at big telecom and tech companies to address competition in the economy.
The White House released a fact sheet on the goals and the actions to be taken to achieve them.
The order would, among other things, task the Federal Communications Commission with reinstituting pre-Trump administration net neutrality rules.
Net neutrality refers to the concept that broadband providers must not block or throttle the content that consumers seek to access on the internet, or provide preferential access to content by business partners.
Under former President Barack Obama, the FCC in February 2015 enacted net neutrality rules promoting what his administration called “the open, fair, and free internet as we know it today.”
Broadband pricing policy
Biden’s order also tackled broadband policy and the digital divide more broadly.
It pointed to the 200 million Americans that live in regions with only one or two internet service providers and stated that this contributes to inflated internet service prices up to five times higher than in areas with more than two ISPs.
The order also condemned relationships between landlords and broadband providers that block new providers from expanding or improving broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas, and it urged the FCC to enact rules to ban such deals and relationships.
To improve price transparency, Biden also urged the FCC to implement a “Broadband Nutrition Label” and require that all broadband providers report their service plans and rates to the FCC for evaluation.
Additionally, the plan directed the FCC to address unreasonably high, early termination fees enacted by broadband providers. The Biden administration argues that these fees are often in place only to discourage consumers from switching to what may be a superior internet service.
Big tech a target, too
In addition to broadband policy, the order would also take aim at data collection and mergers by big tech companies. The factsheet specifically mentioned that the order would tackle “kill acquisitions” designed to stifle perceived competitive threats to tech companies and pointed out that federal regulatory bodies have not done enough to prevent these mergers.
The administration would adopt a policy to greater scrutinize potential mergers, according to the White House fact sheet.
Additionally, the administration also condemned data collection policies by big tech companies, pointing to business models completely dependent on harvesting of sensitive consumer data. To address this, he tasked the Federal Trade Commission to draft new rules on consumer surveillance and data collection.
Net neutrality advocate at the FCC
FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has been a longtime advocate for strong net neutrality laws. Though her critics have argued that there have been precious few examples of companies throttling their consumers internet speed, Rosenworcel has supported initiatives that would classify internet service providers as “common carriers,” and would forbid them from interfering in a user’s internet speed or the content they view.
Explainer: On the Cusp of Sea Change, Broadband Breakfast Examines the Net Neutrality Debate
In the first in a series of explainers, Broadband Breakfast has hand-picked the debate on net neutrality to bring readers up-to-speed on its history and future.
With a change in the guard at the Federal Communications Commission and the White House, the United States is on the cusp of a possible change in direction with respect to its network neutrality rules.
By the summer of 2018, the country had changed its position on the issue when the Trump-era FCC voted to roll back Obama-era rules that, in 2015, cemented rules bolstering net neutrality. The roll-back essentially allowed the telecoms to manage and give preferential treatment to certain traffic that run on their networks.
But something changed. It started when the Department of Justice — the new one under the administration of President Joe Biden — withdrew a lawsuit started under Trump’s presidency against California for its proposed net neutrality rules. After the internet service providers lost a legal challenge to the proposed rules, California became the first state to implement the new legislation.
Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online “Ask Us About Net Neutrality” on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
Then the Biden White House appointed Tim Wu, a fierce advocate for and who coined the term “net neutrality,” to the National Economic Council this year.
There’s an emerging debate across the country about whether more states will follow suit or if a federal-level plan will emerge first.
Before that’s answered, Broadband Breakfast is taking a step-back and has put together an explainer on the issue to get you up-to-speed on its history and what’s at stake.
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 1 (Net Neutrality): On the Cusp of Sea Change, Broadband Breakfast Examines the Net Neutrality Debate
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 2 (Spectrum): Is Spectrum Sharing a Key to Broader Connectivity Goals?
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 3 (Section 230): With Florida Social Media Law, Section 230 Now Positioned In Legal Spotlight
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 4 (Antitrust): Antitrust Heats Up as Biden Selects Tech Critic Jonathan Kanter for Top Enforcement Spot
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that traffic on networks cannot be blocked, slowed, accelerated or otherwise altered by internet service providers. In essence, it is the concept that legal internet activity must be treated equally.
The term was coined by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu in 2003, in a paper about online discrimination. It was an extension of the longstanding concept of a common carrier, used to describe the role of telephone systems as infrastructure that simply transports traffic from one destination to the next with no influence.
The common carrier concept in common law countries says that, regardless of who is using the internet, what content is on it, the website being accessed, or the platform and application it is operating on, nothing will be discriminated against or favored more than another.
What happens when net neutrality is abandoned?
When net neutrality rules were rolled-back in 2018, the ISPs struck. According to Bloomberg, citing research out of Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, wireless carriers have since slowed internet traffic to and from applications like YouTube, Netflix, and Microsoft’s Skype video chat service.
Proponents of zero-rating, the concept that includes apps not counting against users’ monthly data allowance, said it would provide for opportunities for those to experience these services without incurring cost – perhaps in overage charges. Opponents, however, argued it could possibly create an information divide, whereby the less advantaged would be forced to consume certain services and not others.
The rocky history of net neutrality
In the early 2000s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a U.S. regulatory agency, required broadband providers to share their infrastructure with competing firms. In 2005, those requirements were struck down by the Supreme Court. The debate at the time was trying to determine if broadband service providers should also be considered as information services, which allows users to publish and store information online or on telecommunication services.
Watch our 2:57 minute preview video on Net Neutrality
The Obama administration approved net neutrality rules in 2015. This partially barred ISPs like AT&T and Comcast from purposefully increasing, sometimes called throttling, or decreasing speed access to websites based on demand or business preferences.
On the Obama White House Archives site, it says that most internet providers have treated internet traffic equally, “that an entrepreneur’s fledgling company should have the same chance to succeed as established corporations, and that access to a high school student’s blog shouldn’t be unfairly slowed down to make way for advertisers with more money.”
On February 26, 2015, the FCC voted in favor of strong net neutrality rules and on June 14, the same year, the U.S. for the District of Columbia fully upheld the FCC’s net neutrality rules. The Obama administration called it a victory for “the open, fair, and free Internet as we know it today.”
On November 21, 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by former President Trump, unveiled a plan to roll back the Obama administration rules. The plan went into effect on June 11, 2018, and on October 1, 2019, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the FCC’s plan to repeal most of the provisions of net neutrality but struck down a provision that would block states from implementing their own open internet rules. Chairman Pai said in a statement that the appeals’ decision was a “victory for consumers, broadband deployment, and the free and open Internet.” “The court affirmed the FCC’s decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the Internet imposed by the prior [Obama] Administration,” the statement said.
In 2018, the Senate voted to overturn the repeal of net neutrality but the resolution stalled in the House. The House then put it to a vote again in 2019 under the “Save the Internet Act,” but it was effectively dead in the water, at least until 2021.
In favor of net neutrality
Advocates in favor of net neutrality focus on providing smaller companies equal opportunity to thrive. By not allowing ISPs to determine the speed at which consumers can access certain websites or online services, smaller companies will be more likely to enter the market and create new services. Smaller companies are protected in the sense that they may not be able to afford “fast lane” access, while larger, more established companies can.
These advocates for net neutrality point out that several well-established social network websites were created without much seed capital. Had these small businesses been forced to pay extra in order to be as accessible online as their competitors, success may never have come.
Proponents of net neutrality include:
- Human rights organizations
- Consumer rights advocates
- Some software companies
These groups argue that cable companies should be deemed “common carriers,” similar to public utility companies or public transportation providers, who are by law, forbidden from discriminating among their users.
Public Knowledge, a non-profit Washington, D.C.-based public interest group focused on competition, digital choice in the marketplace, and an open standards and end-to-end internet, is in favor of net neutrality.
It says that without net neutrality rules, “ISPs like Verizon and Comcast can prevent users from visiting some websites, provide slower speeds for services like Netflix and Hulu, or even redirect users from one website to a competing website.” Public Knowledge claims that consumers would ultimately be hurt by anti-net neutrality policies, bearing the additional costs on things like their monthly Netflix bill or in the cost of goods from a local online store.
Against net neutrality
Advocates against net neutrality focus on investment incentives and cost concerns for broadband infrastructure. If ISPs are forced to treat all internet traffic equally, the government will ultimately discourage the investment in new infrastructure, and will also see ISPs be slow to innovate. Upfront costs with laying down fiber optic cable can also be very expensive. They say that not being able to charge more for more challenging areas of access will make the investment harder to pay off.
Opponents of net neutrality include:
- Conservative think tanks
- Major telecommunications providers
- Some hardware manufacturers
Telecommunication providers argue that “they must be allowed to charge tiered prices for access in order to remain competitive and generate funds needed for further innovation and expansion of broadband networks, as well as to recoup the costs already invested in broadband.”
Having less oversight on internet service by allowing some ISPs to charge for access to some content would lead to free access to certain sites, reports IT Pro. For example, if ISPs charged more money to bandwidth-hungry companies like Netflix for using their infrastructure, they could offer access to sites like Wikipedia or Facebook for free—even if a consumer had no internet contract.
Net neutrality controversies
The repeal of net neutrality rules has exposed some of the complexities of allowing ISPs to do what they wish with internet traffic. That isn’t more true than for the vertically-integrated providers, who both own the networks and content services that run on them. This has created a debate about possible anti-competitive behavior: what would stop a provider to block or slow traffic on a competing service and speed-up or eliminate data usage on their own services?
That’s exactly what happened with AT&T’s WatchTV streaming service, which was a new product in 2018, following its acquisition of Time Warner (now WarnerMedia). That year — after California backed down from cracking down on zero-rating — the service gave subscribers the option of a subscribing to a bundle of channels with no charge against their data allotment. (After California made its net neutrality legislation law this year, AT&T axed its zero-rating practice in the state and said it would likely have to do the same with the rest of the country.)
And then there were the 2018 California wildfires, some of the worst in the state’s history.
The bombshell from that was the Santa Clara fire department alleging Verizon had throttled its services, which “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” the department said, according to Ars Technica.
The evidence was submitted as part of a lawsuit to reinstate federal net neutrality rules.
The telehealth question
The wildfires incident may take some bite out of the argument that net neutrality rules should be loosened to allow special exemptions to emergency services, but it’s quickly becoming a hot topic for another emerging segment: telehealth.
The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively upended the traditional in-person setting for nearly everything. But it’s especially problematic for medical services.
Critics of the net neutrality law in California are reportedly concerned that a telehealth app, VA Video Connect, whose use doesn’t count against users’ data caps, may be blocked under the legislation.
Boost Mobile, seeing the emerging opportunity, recently announced that it is bundling telehealth services with its packages.
There are exemptions that can be made in state and federal laws for emergency and health services, so time will tell what those could look like.
The future of net neutrality
As the federal government still has net neutrality on the ropes, states have stepped in to guard the internet’s traffic neutrality. Both proponents and opponents of net neutrality have argued that internet freedom will prevail if their side wins.
As of January 2021, 19 states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, introduced legislation in the 2020 legislative session that supports net neutrality.
Though some have taken net neutrality into their own hands, such legislation, even on a state level, can be challenging to implement. The FCC has claimed only itself has the authority to make these kinds of regulations, and that local and state governments cannot pass laws inconsistent with federal net neutrality rules.
In October 2019, a federal appeals court ruling in October 2019 largely upheld the decision to abolish net neutrality, “but ordered the FCC to examine its effect on public safety, federally subsidized broadband services, and utility pole regulations.”
Join the Broadband Breakfast Live Online “Ask Us About Net Neutrality” on Wednesday, May 12, 2021. You can also PARTICIPATE in the current Broadband Breakfast Live Online event. REGISTER HERE.
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